Thunderbirds Head To Sam Houston State For NCAA First-Round Game

November 25, 2013
By SUU Strategic Communication
Zak Browning is 10th in the NCAA in tackles with 10.5 per game after tallying 16 vs. Northern Arizona
Zak Browning is 10th in the NCAA in tackles with 10.5 per game after tallying 16 vs. Northern Arizona
Courtesy: Deb Hill

Quickly: Southern Utah hits the road for the first NCAA Division I playoff game in the school’s history this week as the Thunderbirds travel to Huntsville, Texas, to take on Sam Houston State in a first round match-up.

The 22nd-ranked Thunderbirds (8-4/5-3 Big Sky) head into the game having won three of their final four games but the one setback was a 20-10 home loss to No. 8 Northern Arizona on Saturday. On a cold, snowy day the Thunderbirds had a 10-0 third quarter lead but the Lumberjacks were able to take advantage of  three SUU turnovers to score 20 unanswered points – including a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown with 10 seconds to play – to secure the victory.

The 14th-ranked Bearkats (8-4/4-3 Southland) are also coming off a loss, in fact back-to-back losses, as they head into the game. SHSU lost a 34-21 decision at Southeastern Louisiana on Nov. 16 then fell at Central Arkansas, 49-31, last week. Unlike the Thunderbirds, however, the Bearkats are no stranger to the playoffs, as they have advanced to the championship game the past two seasons before falling to North Dakota State in both title tilts.

The Game: No. 22 Southern Utah (8-4/5-3) at No. 14 Sam Houston State (8-4/4-3), Saturday at 2:00 p.m. (Central) at Elliott T. Bowers Stadium (12,975/RealGrassPro).

Radio: All of Southern Utah’s 2013 football games are available over the Thunderbird Sports Network. SUU flagship station KSUU (91.1 FM) will carry every game live as well as on the worldwide web at Dr. Art Challis, who is in his 40th season as the Voice of the Thunderbirds, provides the play-by-play while Brian Brown will provide analysis.

Game To Be Telecast Live on ESPN3:The game will be televised live on ESPN3 with Trey Bender on play-by-play Jay Taylor providing analysis and Brooke Williamson as the sideline reporter. Links to the game can be found on SUU’s website at on both the football schedule page and in the links menu.

Video Highlights:Video highlights will be available through the NCAA. Accredited media outlets should contact SUU Media Relations Director Neil Gardner for more information.

Media Availability:Players and coaches are available for interviews on Tuesdays following practice, at approximately 7:00 p.m. To contact a player or coach on another day or time, or to arrange telephone interviews, contact Neil Gardner at or 435-586-7753.

Thunderbird Practice Schedule:The players are off on Mondays, with daily practices Tuesday through Friday. Tuesday practices are scheduled to begin at 5:35 p.m., Wednesday practices will begin at 5:30, while Thursday and Friday practices will start at 4:45 p.m.

The Series: The Thunderbirds have never faced Sam Houston State in football but have met three other present or former Southland teams and have a 10-11 record against teams from the conference. SUU is 7-4 against Texas State, with all 11 meetings coming when the Bobcats were in the Southland, are 2-4 against McNeese State and 1-3 against Stephen F. Austin.

Big Sky Teleconference:The Big Sky Conference will host a teleconference Wednesday morning with the two head coaches and players from the teams which are playing this weekend, Southern Utah’ Ed Lamb and Northern Arizona’s Jerome Souers. The teleconference will begin with Lamb and an SUU player to be named at 10:00 a.m. (Mountain) followed by Souers and an NAU player to be named at 10:15. For information on accessing the call please contact SUU Director of Athletic Media Relations Neil Gardner at 435-586-7753 or via email at

Next Up:

The winner of Saturday’s game moves on to take on fourth-seeded Southeastern Louisiana, another Southland Conference team, in Hammond, La. on Saturday, Dec. 7 at 8:00 p.m.

The Coaches:

A 2013 and 2010 Eddie Robinson Award nominee, SUU's Ed Lamb (BYU, 1996) has a record of 34-33 in his sixth season as the Thunderbird head coach and his sixth season as a head coach overall. After taking over a team that went 0-11 in the season before his arrival he has overseen a constant ascent of the Thunderbird program, this year leading SUU to its first post-season berth since the school moved from junior college to four-year status in 1963. Last year Lamb guided the Thunderbirds to a 5-6 record, including a 4-4 mark in SUU’s first season in the Big Sky Conference. In 2011 he led the T-Birds to their second straight winning season and their first win over an FBS-level opponent (UNLV) since 1997.  He led the team to a Great West Conference championship in 2010 when the Thunderbirds went undefeated in GWC play and finished the season with a 6-5 overall mark. Prior to taking over at SUU, Lamb spent three seasons at the University of San Diego where he coordinated the special teams and recruiting and was the Toreros’ defensive backs coach. Lamb also spent two seasons as defensive coordinator at Idaho, a season at BYU as a linebackers coach and four seasons at the University of Redlands, three as defensive coordinator and one as defensive line coach. Coach Lamb is 0-0 vs. the Bearkats.

Sam Houston’s Willie Fritz (Pittsburgh State, 1983) is 39-14 in his fourth season at the helm of the Bearkat program and 175-66-1 in his 21st season overall as a head coach. Prior to taking over the SHSU program Coach Fritz spent 13 seasons as head coach at Central Missouri and four at Blinn Junior College. He has guided the Bearkats to two of the last three Southland Conference championships and back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Division I championship game. Coach Fritz is 0-0 vs. the Thunderbirds. 

Affiliations: Southern Utah is a member of the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision’s Big Sky Conference. Sam Houston State is a member of the Southland Conference.

Notes from the Northern Arizona Game:

• The game was played in cold, snowy conditions. Temperature at kickoff was 28 degrees and it was 30 degrees when it ended, according to the National Weather Service.

• Sophomore linebacker Zak Browning had a game-high 16 tackles, tying his and the team’s 2013 season high. He also had 16 stops two weeks earlier at Weber State. He is now second on the team’s tackles list despite missing the Portland State, Eastern Washington and Idaho State games. Browning also had two of the team’s four tackles for loss.

• Sophomore cornerback LeShaun Sims also tied his season tackles high against the Lumberjacks, finishing with nine, the total he had at Sacramento State.

• SUU lost the turnover battle for just the fifth time this season. Three of the other four were in the Thunderbirds’ other three losses. The T-Birds lost a fumble on a muffed punt, just the second lost fumble of the season, and threw two interceptions.

• SUU did not force a turnover for just the second time this season, although the team did block both a field goal attempt and a punt.

• After tallying a season-high five sacks at Montana State one week earlier the Thunderbird defense went without a sack vs. NAU. It was just the second time this season the team didn’t get to the opposing quarterback. The other sack-less game was at Washington State.

• The Thunderbirds finished with 86 rushing yards, their fifth fewest of the season and the lowest total since a 64-yard output vs. Portland State on Oct. 12. The team is now 2-3 when it rushes for fewer than 100 yards.

• The team’s total yards, 195, were its second-fewest this season, behind the 183 in the win over PSU.

SUU In The National Ranks:

SUU has five players ranked among the FCS top-50 in eight statistical categories and the team figures among the top-30 programs in 14 categories, including five in which the Thunderbirds rank in the top-10.

Defense: Sophomore linebacker Zak Browning ranks 10th in the nation with 10.3 tackles per game while sophomore DE James Cowser ranks in two categories. Cowser is 15th in sacks with 0.8 per game and 16th in tackles for loss with 1.4 per game.

Offense:On the offensive side of the ball QB Aaron Cantu also ranks among the nation’s top-50 in two categories: 20th in completion percentage at .648 and 43rd in completions per game with 16.6.

Special Teams:Kicker Colton Cook’s 1.5 field goals per game rank fifth in the nation while his field goal percentage (.818) ranks 14th. Punter Brock Miller’s 43.4 yards per punt average puts him 11th in the nation.

Team:In the team categories, SUU leads the nation in fumbles lost with two. The Thunderbirds are also fourth in the FCS in net punting (39.62 yards per punt), red zone defense (66.7 percent) and time of possession (33:15), and are ninth in fewest penalty yards with 40.7 per game.

SUU is also 11th in scoring defense at 19.8 ppg and in turnover margin (plus-0.8 per game), is 12th in rushing defense (111.6 ypg), 13th in turnovers gained (27), 17th in penalties per game (4.75), 19th in fumbles recovered (12) and 20th in blocked kicks (four). The Thunderbirds also rank 21st in pass interceptions with 15 and 22nd in total defense at 334.8 yards per game.

Scouting the Bearkats:

Not only is Sam Houston State experienced in the playoffs but they are also very tough at home. The Bearkats have the longest current home winning streak in the FCS, 21 games, with the last loss at Bowers Stadium coming at the hands of McNeese State in 2010. The 21-game streak is the 12th-longest in FCS history. 

The Bearkats prolific offense averages 255.7 yards per game on the ground, seventh-best in the FCS, and 200.6 yards through the air. SHSU is also sixth in the nation in scoring, at 41.3 points per game.

On the defensive side of the ball, Sam Houston has given up an average of 277.7 passing and 145.8 rushing yards per game and opponents have averaged 28.1 points per contest.

Senior running back Timothy Flanders is the Bearkats all-time leading rusher, with 5,406 yards on the ground in his four-year career. A two-time MVP of the Southland Conference, Flanders averages 97.7 yards per game this season with 11 touchdowns.

Senior quarterback Brian Bell is a dual rushing and passing threat. Bell has completed 153-of-271 passes for 2,299 yards and 30 touchdowns with 10 interceptions and he is second on the team with a 41.8 yards per-game rushing average. His favorite target has been senior wide-out Torrance Williams, who has 51 receptions for 945 yards and 12 touchdowns, but four more ‘Kats are in double-figures in receptions, including senior Richard Sincere and sophomore Gerald Thomas, who are second and third with 23 catches for 300 yards and 21 grabs for 319 yards, respectively.

Senior linebacker Eric Fieilo leads the Bearkats on the defensive side of the ball with 91 tackles, including five for losses with a sack and an interception, while Tanner Brock, another senior LB, has 86 tackles, including four for losses and two sacks. Junior free safety Michael Wade is third on the team with 84 tackles. The sacks leader is senior DE Andrew Weaver, who has six among his 42 total tackles, and he co-leads the team in TFL along with freshman DE Mouf Adebo at 7.5. Nine Bearkats have intercepted passes, led by Wade and senior CB De’Antrey Loche, who each have two.

T-Birds In The Polls:Southern Utah entered the national polls for the first time since the 2011 season last week. The Thunderbirds garnered 878 points to rank 20th in the Sports Network’s media poll and pulled in 63 votes from the coaches to rank 22nd in that poll. After the loss to NAU the T-Birds dipped to 22nd in the TSN poll and 25th in the coaches. Until this year Southern Utah had never been ranked this late in the season.

Lamb An Eddie Robinson Award Finalist

For the second time in the past four seasons SUU Coach Ed Lamb has been named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award, which is given annually to the NCAA Division I FCS Coach of the Year.

Lamb has guided the Thunderbirds to an 8-4 record and a No. 22 national ranking after SUU was picked to finish ninth in the Big Sky’s pre-season polls. The 2013 T-Birds have earned the school’s first NCAA football playoff berth and equaled the program’s single-season wins mark.

Coach Lamb was also a finalist for the award in 2010 when he guided SUU to a Great West Conference championship.

He is one of two Big Sky coaches among the 20 finalists, as Eastern Washington’s Beau Baldwin – who led the Eagles to an 8-0 Big Sky mark and a No. 3 seed in the NCAA playoffs – is also on the list.

Records Watch:

• Senior PK Colton Cook sets SUU’s career record every time he hits a field goal. His 38-yard game-winner at Sacramento State put him into a tie atop SUU’s career-field goals list with Herkey Marxen at, appropriately, 38, and the tie-breaker came in the win at Northern Colorado. He has subsequently succeeded on 13 more tries to put the record at 51. Cook has 18 field goals this season, which is one shy of his own record set last year. He is also fourth on both the career PAT and points lists, with 232 and 79, respectively, but trails Tysson Poots (2007-10) by 26 points and Steve Pulver (2003-07) by 27 PAT.

• Senior WR Fatu Moala – who has caught a pass in 31 straight games and in every game he has ever played in during his SUU career, 32 – moved into fifth place on a pair of career lists – receptions and receiving yards – at Northern Colorado and after the subsequent games he has 143 receptions for 1,757 yards. He is 319 yards behind Bob Stookey (1988-91) while his two catches vs. NAU tied him with A.J. Smith (2003-04) in fourth place on the receptions list. Moala is also knocking on the door of another list as he needs just one touchdown to move into a tie for ninth in SUU’s career receiving TDs list (he is currently 11th with 10).

• Senior punter Brock Miller’s career average of 43.2 yards per punt is the best average in school history, while his season average of 43.4 is fourth-best in school history.

• Quarterback Aaron Cantu has also put himself in the SUU top-10 in two single-season categories and is in the top-15 in a third. He has completed 182 of 281 passes for 1,763 yards this season. His completions are the eighth-most in a season at SUU while his attempts are 10th and the yards rank 14th. He needs two completions to move past Wes Marshall’s 183 in 2006 and 18 to pass Cody Stone’s 2008 mark and he is 19 attempts behind Jerry Dyer’s 1974 season. As far as yards go he is nine behind the late Buck Paopao (1970), 76 behind James Armendariz (1991), 92 behind Chad Richard (1986) and he needs 97 to pass Rick Robins (1993) and crack the top-10.

Thunderbird Quick Hits:

• SUU is 4-1 in overtime games. Since losing a 42-34 decision at Hampton in 2000 in their first OT game the Thunderbirds have won their last four extra session games: a 23-17 double-overtime win at home over South Dakota State in 2004, a 20-17 home win over Northern Colorado in 2005, a 35-29 triple-OT win at Northern Arizona last season and a 24-21 win at Sacramento State on Sept. 21.

• SUU is in its 51st season as a four-year football-playing institution and its 28th as a member of the NCAA. The 2013 season also marks the Thunderbirds’ 21st as a member of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision and is the school’s second in the Big Sky Conference. SUU competed in the Great West Conference prior to moving to the BSC.

• The Thunderbirds played a 12-game schedule for the first time in school history. With the exception of one year, SUU has played an 11-game season every year since 1985. The lone exception came in 2005 when the Thunderbirds’ game at McNeese State was cancelled because of damage caused by Hurricane Rita.